Preventing Offshore Oil Spills
Roger Cooke, Heather Ross, and Adam Stern
Events that open the door to offshore oil spills happen all the time. They are the first
steps in accident sequences that are generally cut short by safety mechanisms before well
control is lost. But not always—as reported in the Wall Street Journal, there were 28 major
drilling-related spills, natural gas releases, or incidents in which workers lost control of
a well in the U.S Gulf of Mexico in 2009, up over 60 percent from 2006. As drilling activity
extends to deeper water and higher-pressure horizons, these events are increasing, coming
dramatically to our attention with the Macondo well blowout, the biggest system failure yet.
The first order of business to prevent offshore spills is observing what is going wrong
and correcting it. No amount of planning, training, standard setting, incentive structuring,
institution-building or culture-imbuing can substitute for this fundamental recognition.
Problems will arise and we must spot them when they occur and prevent them from occurring
again. This is the centerpiece of any risk management effort: collect data, track performance,
learn lessons, and improve results. Offshore, this means setting up a quantitative
risk-performance tracking system that reports real-time operating data to feed spill-focused
learning models that use experience in the Gulf to illuminate patterns of mishaps occurring
as drilling proceeds. A successful system will do for offshore oil and gas what the Nuclear
Regulatory Commission accomplished in the U.S. nuclear sector with its Accident Sequence
Precursor (ASP) program developed after Three Mile Island. Thirty years on, that sector, both
government and industry, is among the most sophisticated users of quantitative risk assessment
and has not had another significant core meltdown.